Plant Genomics is Latest Frontier of Artificial Intelligence

Troy Ault

In spite of the much-covered legal battle over the intellectual property related to CRISPR Cas9 gene editing technology, companies in the cleantech ecosystem have been pushing forward, continuously innovating with new techniques and resulting tools for industry.

Most recently, this last week culminated in Benson Hill Biosystems’ announcement of its new CRISPR 3.0 tool for agricultural applications, including increasing the nutritional density of crops and improving yield against stressors such as drought, among others.

That company’s $25 million Series B round of funding in March contributed to the nearly $200 million in funding we’ve already tracked in 2017 for the plant genomics subset of agricultural VC on our i3 database:

Global Venture Investment in Plant Genomics

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of CRISPR and other plant genomics technology development lies in the computational advances and artificial intelligence (AI) that accompany the new biological tools.

The transformation afoot is that – as DNA is understood as a numeric sequence that can be computationally mapped and manipulated – algorithmic tools can be introduced to speed further discoveries. Key to Benson Hill’s announcement was the partnership model it espouses in opening up its “CropOS” AI technology to the industry – thereby giving access to its CRISPR 3.0 toolset to a wider set of possible innovators.

Further, as CRISPR gene editing techniques are only manipulating an existing plant’s genome and do not introduce foreign DNA, the technology is not subject to regulatory regimes governing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The upshot of all this is thought to be a sort of democratization in the “who and where” further advances will come from in plant genomics. Previously, R&D in the space would have been the exclusive domain of deep-pocketed agribusiness shops like Monsanto and Syngenta – but no more.

Other plant genomics innovators leveraging artificial intelligence or advanced bioinformatics – including Caribou Biosciences, the company at the heart of the Cas9 legal fight – are also attracting funding across the ecosystem, suggesting that this is a niche space that is heating up:

Recipient
Investment Details
$100M from Flagship Pioneering & Alaska Permanent Fund in July, 2016
$57M from Makhteshim-Agan Group in July, 2017
$130M from Prelude Ventures, Iconiq Capital, Tao Capital Softbank, Obvious Ventures, and others in October 2016
$30M from Anterra Capital, Heritage Group, Pontifax AgTech, Novartis, and others in May, 2016
$7M from Cowles Companies & WRF Capital in July, 2017
$12.4M from JB Equity, Milltrust International, and Edinburgh University in April, 2017
Undisclosed Seed or A round in March, 2017

Ginkgo Bioworks and GreenLight Biosciences, which also recently raised venture funding, are meanwhile pursuing similar techniques towards bioindustrial fermentation and pest control, respectively.

A final observation is that most business models in the space have shifted upstream, with innovators looking to be platform technology providers rather than producers. This is, perhaps, taking a lesson from the biofuel start-ups era where build-own-operate models did not fare well.

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